Home again home again jiggity jig

2 Apr

Sunday April 1

Well, I have been back in Canada since Wednesday at noonish. When you arrive home from such a big trip, where so much happens, it always take a few days to process. Not to mention that I went to Ottawa for the weekend for a meditation weekend with a group I’ve just started with (I’m currently sitting in the backseat of the car that I hitched a lift with, typing away!).

When I get home from big trips, people often ask me what the highlights were for me. So here’s my attempt at some highlights:

The Golden Temple: I was so lucky to be able to visit the temple about 6 times or so, and at different times (sunset, sunrise, mid-afternoon etc). The temple is different at different times of the day: the lighting, the people, the atmosphere. But each time, I had such a special experience. Whenever vast crowds of people come together with a common purpose of worship, no matter what the religion, the presence of the being you worship is palpable. The music at the temple is also very special – live music (several instruments and chanting) from 4 am to midnight, while performed in the temple is broadcast over loudspeakers and the chanting is gorgeous.

Seeing His Holiness the Dalai Lama is McLeod Ganj: well to be honest I only caught a glimpse of his face once, and then had a great view of the top of his head for several hours, but to be in the same room as hundreds of monks, waiting for HH, and then in the same space as he was, surrounded by chanting, was magical.

The Panchakarma (cleanse) at PDI: as you know from my facebook posts and what I’ve written previously, the Panchakarma was not all good times. It involves drinking ghee prepared with herbs for three mornings in a row, followed by drinking a concoction and taking a pill which flushed your body out. Hours of entertainment on the toilet. But, I took the opportunity to make the most of the experience and as Dr Latika suggested let it be an emotional cleansing as well as a physical one. It really was a special experience.

My outing in the hills north of Rishikesh: to see the Ganga (and fall in – you should see the bruise I have), to sit in the presence of Maa Gyaan Suveera, to feel the joy of workship a the ISKCON temple……real magic.

The music: I remember the sounds as much as anything else. And I heard some great ones: the aforementioned chanting at the Golden Temple and the ISKCON temple and the fantastic music from so many taxi and tuktuk drivers. The music of India is so special, and will always transport me instantaneously back to that wonderful place.

Last year when I returned from India, I really struggle to acclimatize back into my life. I think it took me nearly two months to be where I was, instead of back in India. This time, it’s been a smoother transition. I think partly because it’s my second time, and being at the meditation weekend also really helped (which is one of the reasons that I timed my return in order to be able to attend). But part of my heart will always be in India. Like so many Westerners before me, I found pieces of myself in India that I didn’t know existed. Who I am today is in part to what I found there. In that way, India is a place where I was born, and will always be like a home to me. And I hope to return there, many times, and have more and more of myself revealed to me each time I do.

But at this moment, as the car I’m in drives through the beauty that is Eastern Ontario, I am fully present here. The pine forests, interrupted by white spears of birch trees that have yet to bud, are such a reminder of Canada. The small pools and lakes by the side of the road are clear and so perfectly reflect the blue sky with pouffy white clouds that it’s as if the world has suddenly been turned upside down and the sky is at my feet. This land sings to me, and while I know that India may be home to my spirit, Canada is and always will be my home.

Pictures

29 Mar

Because I (stupidly and wrongly) decided not to purchase the cable that connects my camera to my iPad, I’ve had to wait until I got home and uploaded the pictures from my camera to my laptop before I could share them with you. now, I took 367 pictures. So I’m not going to upload them all, but here are a few highlights.

The Taj Mahal, as seen from the Agra Fort

The Taj Mahal and Me

Me and the Taj Mahal

Yi and I at the Agra Fort

Yi and I at the Agra Fort

 

Sculpture of Surya Namascar at the Delhi Airport

The Golden Temple in Amritsar. This is the actual temple itself – and the huge lineup of people waiting to get into to see it (average 45 minute wait time). You can’t take pictures of the interior of the temple, so just imagine it – it’s gorgeous.

The view from the rooftop patio of m hotel at sunset. Here you can see more of the temple complex, with the Temple itself siting in the middle of a pool.

 

McLoed Ganj and some of its many prayer flags.

Green salad. This particular one is from Brothers Dabba in Amritsar but I ate them all over India. Starting from teh top – shredded cabbage, radish (which look like carrots only white), onion, tomato all topped with fresh lime and pepper. Yum.

Elephant at Rajaje National Park

one of my favourite pictures from this year – Rajaje National Park

All fancied up for PDI’s anniversary celebration

Chai chai chai…….

 

 

In Transit

28 Mar

Tuesday March 27- Wednesday March 28

I haven’t had access to the internet in more than 24 hours. Wifi at PDI went out sometime Monday night and was still out in the morning – then we had a power outage from about 11:30 am until we left at 2:45. So the first thing I have to say in this post is Happy Birthday to my sister Jen and her daughter, my niece Natalie! I’m sorry I couldn’t email you for your birthdays.

Right now I’m about 24 hours into my 30 hour journey. It began with the long goodbye at PDI. We had an amazing lunch – Cooky (have I told this story? The Cutch folks took to calling our chef Mohinder Cook which quickly turned into Cooky) outdid himself and even made a paneer dish (we don’t usually eat paneer at PDI unless it’s a special occasion, and Thirza and I (we are both kaphas and try not to eat too much cheese and it’s not good for us) whine about missing cheese).

Then all of the staff gathering for a little leaving ceremony which involves all of the staff gathering to wish us farewell. It’s so had to leave PDI, which is such a nurturing place with amazing and caring staff.

 

Finally, Thirza and I got into the car to start our drive to Delhi. We got a free upgrade to a fancy car (with comfy seats!) and our taxi driver had awesome music. I cried twice and had a good sob as well. But it is a long drive- nearly 7 hours- and a hair-raising one at that. The first 3 hours (60 km) was just along a 2 lane road passing though villages, and filled with cars, trucks, scooters, cows, pedestrians, dogs……We drove through fields of sugar cane with entire families (including young children) harvesting and processing the harvest. We drove through tiny groupings of desperately pour dwellings of sticks and pieces of plastic. We drove through areas specializing in machinery and parts with skeletons of former clients…….we drove post new “cities” and “towns” of what I guess would be the North American equivalent of condos but are set up as full and complete gated communities for the wealthy. We saw fancy cars and tuktuks with more than a dozen hard working and poor people trying to get home. We saw bicycles driven by young goys pulling loads that in North America would be hauled by light trucks and scooters with entire families on them (including babies sitting up in front, holding on to the handlebars. Drive for any length of time in India and you see it’s many contrasts. There is no end of things to see in India.

We finally arrived at the airport at 9:30 pm (or at least I was- as our driver took us to a ridiculously expensive restaurant in the diplomatic district and we refused to eat there) to find out that our flight was delayed by two hours with a new ETD of 3 am. We couldn’t check our flight times before we left PDI that morning because of the aforementioned power outage…….But at least we got checked in easily, AND the airline – KLM- gave us vouchers for a free meal! At Air Canada they’d probably end up charging YOU for the delayed flight and instead I got a dosa with sambar and two chutneys and a drink.

Dosa and chutneys

After shopping and scoring two lounge chairs, the time wiled away. Thirza is very funny when she’s sleep deprived.

The delay in leaving Delhi cut out most of my stopover time in Amsterdam, which was fine actually because Thirza and I could hang out together vs me being on my own in Amsterdam. Surrounded by cheese.

So, here I sit, somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean with about 5 hours left to my flight. It hasn’t been that bad – the secret to flying is in the drugs. I started to loose it in the plane on the tarmac in Amsterdam when we were delayed leaving because of some luggage problem and the flight attendants wouldn’t let me use the bathroom but then I took an atavan and I was fine. Now just trying to put a month long voyage in to some kind of perspective……or at least something that I can absorb. But as much as I try, India remains a place too difficult to explain. India isn’t a place that you visit and see – it’s an energy and culture that you absorb. It’s a feeling that crawls into your heart. All I can say is, if India is on your list of place to go, GO. Don’t worry about the details and just GO. And if it’s not, then maybe try Bali or somewhere else. “Cause it’s not an easy place to be by any stretch of the imagination, but once India cracks your heart wide open it crawls inside of you and you can’t be anywhere else.

Around Rishikesh

28 Mar

Tuesday March 27th

I love Rishikesh. I stayed there for about 10-11 days last year at the Anand Prakash Ashram (to be more precise, the ashram is in Topovan which is just up the hill from the Ganga and Laxman Jhoola bridge). Laxman Jhoola is a great area. It is fairly touristy, lots of Western tourists and Indian tourists, and LOTS of great shopping. There are also lots of hikes, tons of temples, and oh yeah, Mother Ganga herself. There are beaches on this river – white sandy beaches that are actually finely ground stone.

Rishikesh is pretty much the yoga capital of the world. I think you could stay in Rishikesh (around Laxman and Ram Jhoolas especially) for a month and go somewhere different for yoga every day and never duplicate. This would be a great area for a prolonged stay, particularly if you want to study something like Sanskrit or yoga or Ayurveda or music etc etc……but if you just wanted to hang out somewhere relaxed and a bit hippie-ish.

Rishikesh is pretty big – like most Indian cities it spraaaaaaawls. Population is about 200,000 which makes it a small town by Indian standards. I’ve really on focussed on Laxman Jhoola and Ram Jhoola (two bridges that span the Ganga) and the market area. Laxman Jhoola is a hubub of shops and restaurants. You can walk through the shopping district and along the Ganga to Ram Jhoola and the Swarg Ashram district (where evening aarti ceremonies are held). There are always lots of monks, sahdus and tourists taking a dip in the Ganga or sitting and meditating on its banks.

 

One of my favourite restaurants (and everyone else’s) is the German Cafe and Bakery. Perched high above the Laxman Jhoola bridge, it’s always packed with tourists (mostly Westerners) grabbing a bit of sun, a great view of the bridge (full of people, motorcycles, cows and monkeys and jockeying for space on the narrow suspension bridge). Last year I spent nearly every morning there, as the ashram was too cold in the mornings, reading or writing in my journal and talking to people.

Ram Jhoola, just down the river, is home to Swarg Ashram which (I think) is a collection of ashrams that lie on the banks of the Ganga. Every evening around sundown there is a ceremony (aarti) that when I attended it last year, was the first highlight of my trip. Is it a bit on the touristy side for sure, but lots of Indian tourists as well. All the folks on the expensive tours get first dibs around the fire puja etc, but for me, like lots of things in India, it’s about the music. The monks from nearby Parmath Niketan lead the singing, and the Indian crowd often joins in. As the sun sets, you can set offerings (flowers and candles etc) into the river, towards a statue of Shiva set in the river. Magic.

Between the two Jhoolas (bridges) is some great shopping. Yes, it’s a bit on the touristy side – but think more clothes and scarves etc than statues and kitch. The only downside to shopping here (aside from luggage fess for the extra suitcase!) is the bartering. Shopkeepers will always overcharge Westerners. And I’m pretty bad at bartering, not because I don’t know how (I was REALLY good at it in Bali) but because 1) I always compare the prices to what I’d pay at home and 2) I have the money, and they don’t. I always feel pretty good about the cheap prices I pay until an Indian friend asks me what I paid and then is shocked. An excellent examples is the henna that I had done on my hands just before leaving. I was quote 300 rupees for the front and another 300 for the back of my hands (just over 10 Canadian dollars in total). It didn’t really occur to me to barter for a service, and of course it does take nearly an hour to do so AND it seems pretty cheap by Canadian standards. But then, Rheka, Dr Vivek’s wife (who visited PDI with their two girls just before I left PDI) told me that she paid 50 rupess for her henna, which included free henna for her daughters. And BTW, mine sucked (the right hand sucked, the left looked good – two artists). Rheka went so far to say that I shouldn’t go anywhere without an Indian to barter for me. Now, she may be right…….but I’m far too independent for that. i dare say I’ll get better at this business as I continue to travel in India.

Bartering in Bali was totally different. There it’s more of a game – a sport really – and is enjoyed by shopkeepers and is quite fun. You can pretend to faint at the price you are quoted, and the shopkeepers will swoon at your counteroffer. This may ben an unfair perception, but in India I feel like shopkeepers are trying to rip me off – or at least, they think I have money and can afford it. And let’s be honest, that part is true.

Laxman Jhoola is only about 15 kms from PDI, but it take about an hour by tuktuk. Apparently the road is being widened into a four lane highway – that will make it much easier to travel back and forth. But traveling by tuktuk is always an adventure. My favourtie is the shared tuktuk – where you can share the ride with one or a dozen people (my personal record is 11 people – 9 adults and 2 children + the driver). It’s a very cheap way to travel – usually about 15-20 rupees (5 for Indians). The disadvantage is you often have to wait. And wait. And wait for the tuktuk to fill up. Sometimes you have to change vehicles partway through (on Sunday I had to change twice and wait for a total of about 25 minutes). But for about 40 cents Canadian, I’ll take it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there actually is something beyond (north) of Rishikesh – the hills and gorgeousness of the Ganga in a wilder, less settled setting. You can go on 2 hour or 2 or 3 day rafting trips down the river and stay at these huge semi-permanent campsites right on the river bank (seeing these tent cities reminded me of the Red Centre in Australia around Uluru – semi-permanent campsites as far as the eye can see). I am putting this on my list for next year.

So those of you who have India on their ‘lists’ – put Rishikesh on yours. It’s a fabulous place.

My top ten favourite things that I brought to India

26 Mar

Now this of course is a very personalized list. Not necessarily the list of things YOU should bring to India, but just 10 things I brought that I LOVED.

10. Well actually, I could only think of 9 🙂

9. My drug kit. I didn’t need to much in my drug kit – but the two things I did need – gravol and immodium – I REALLY needed. So very glad I had them!

8. Prunes. Oh yes,I bought this great little re-sealed plastic tub of prunes at home. On my first trip to India I was really……well let’s just say I really need some prunes. So I brought some this year, and had 2-4 per day. And no problems! They are also a good fruit source and source of vitamin C. And while there is fruit a plenty in India, getting ‘safe’ fruit is not always easy. It’s best to purchase fruit with peels – oranges and bananas, unless you’re in a reputable restaurant where you can order fruit salads or a fruit plate. There was a 5 day stretch where the only fruit I got was my prunes.

7. My pediscrubby stick, bag balm, cuticle cream, nail clippers, nail file and nail polish. Okay, I’ll readily admit I’m vain about my feet. But that aside, India is HELL on your feet. I swear my feet only recovered from my last trip shortly before I left on this one. It’s too hot to wear socks and running shoes here (though good to bring to wear on planes and for hiking etc) so I’m in Birkenstocks all the time. And lord this country is dirty. I’m fighting India for my feet and I’m losing. I didn’t bring foot scrub (I drew the vanity line there) and I totally regret it. I’m washing my feet 2-5 times a day here. And they are STILL DIRTY.

6. My iPod with talking books. I have all of the Jane Austens (except Northanger Abbey, which I don’t really like) on my iPod and they are so great for traveling. When you’re on a plane and too sleepy to read or watch a movie it’s perfect, especially if it’s a favourite book you know well (like my Jane Austens) because you can nod off and wake up without really missing anything! Talking books are also great for bus/train when there’s scenery to look at.

5. Ear plugs. India is very loud. ALL OF THE TIME. If you are staying in a city, or your hotel/ashram etc is close to a road, you will hear the cars all night. And I’m not talking about the roar of traffic, I’m talking about extremely loud horns. ALL NIGHT. If it’s not the traffic, it will be the dogs. Or something else. So ear plugs are a must.

4. Compressible travel pillow from Mountain Equipment Coop. This was awesome. Last year I brought a full-sized regular pillow with me. This is waaaaaay easier because it rolls up into a little sausage making it easy to transport, and when you unroll it, it fluffs up on its own. They come in several sizes – I found the large size perfect for sleeping. Pillows in India tend to be either flat bricks or thick bricks. If you have neck problems, or just like to be comfy 🙂 definitely pick one of these up.

3. Lonely Planet India. Now mine is a couple of years old now, I’ll leave it behind when I leave. Now you can buy them electronically for your iPad/eReader. There are even some countries/cities that are available via the Lonely Planet Ap. The Book (as Elise and I like to call it) is great for deciding what to see, learning brief history/context of the county, culture, sights etc, alerts on scams and touts, and recommendations for hotels and restaurants etc. You can’t travel without it, in my opinion (and even stay home – I have the Lonely Planet Canada and Toronto and use them frequently). The LP website also has some great discussion forums called Thorntree.

2. Unlocked international-ready cell (mobile) phone. Last year I did not have a cell phone and this year it was SO much easier to travel with one. You must have a mobile phone (cell) to travel here. It just makes everything so damn easy, particularly if you’re not booking everything in advance so that you can call around to make arrangements if necessary. You can easily purchase a SIM card for your unlocked phone at the airport, after picking up your bags and going through customs. It’s absolutely worth it. Adding more credit to your phone is very easy – just look for a small shop that says “Re-charge Mobile Here”. Tell the shopkeeper the cell company you purchased the SIM from and how much you want to put on the phone. After getting your mobile number, the shopkeeper will credit your account and you’ll receive an sms (text) message confirming the transaction (minus a service charge, of course!).

1. my iPad. I hummed and hawed for a LONG time about buying an iPad, even though I had the money saved up it is quite an expensive. But this hands down is the BEST thing I brought with me in India. It’s very handy for staying in touch and planning your trip. I’ve really loved doing this blog, which I couldn’t have without my own device of some kind. But particularly on days when I felt homesick or lonely, or not well (which let’s face it, you will have a couple of days at least when you don’t feel well in India!) it was a real godsend. I also plunked out the money for a hard case and bluetooth keyboard – so it’s like having an itsy bitsy laptop.

I also thought I should mention a few things that I didn’t bring, that I really wish that I had.
the little cable that you can buy to connect your camera to your iPad. I thought I’d spent quite enough money on the iPad etc so I didn’t buy it. I really wish I had (and so many of you have asked me to post more pictures but all I can post is what’s on my iPad.
bug spray. The places I travelled to are malaria-free zones, so for some reason I completely forgot that didn’t mean there weren’t mosquitos – it just means there is little or no malaria. So I didn’t bring any bug spray, and I’m completely covered with bites.
the aforemention foot scrub
small torch (flashlight). For one thing the power goes out a lot here (1-4 times each day) so it can be handy. Also, it gets very dark around here (little or no streetlights) and if you are out and about at night it would be very good to have (keep in mind at this time of year – March – it does get dark at 7 pm so not very late).

What the heck is Ayurveda?

26 Mar

So many of you have been asking me this question. And I promise, I will answer it really, really soon. Though I’m not going to answer it now I wanted to bookmark an entry for it. And I’ll post soon. Promise!

2.5.3 An Outing

26 Mar

Thursday March 22

I have officially recovered from the panchakarma, am back on regular food (after 1 day or rice water and 2 days of clear soups) and feeling better. So, Dr Vivek took Helga (another patient, from Holland) and I on an outing. I had wanted to see the hills north of Rishikesh, and Helga wanted to see one of the speakers from PDI’s anniversary conference, who happened to live in the hills, so off we went. It turned out to be one of the best days I had this trip.

First of all, we went in a private car. A deluxe model with comfortable seats, I might add. The first comfortable chair I have sat in since I left my big red chair in my apartment in Toronto. LUXURY to be so comfortable……then, once you finally get to Rishikesh (it’s only about 15 or so kms but take 45-60 minutes) it is SO beautiful. The hills are so gorgeous, and the entire journey past Rishikesh the road winds around and along the cliffs of Mother Ganga. Add to that, the taxi driver had AMAZING music. Of course, the batteries in my camera died and while I do have extras, I didn’t have them with me.

Our first stop was down a long ramp and set of stairs to the Ganga, where there is a small ashram and meditation cave. It was established in 1924 or so when the Guru sat in a cave and meditated. Within a few years he gained followers and the small ashram was built. You can enter the original cave and sit for a few moments, there is lovely energy there. Helga and I decided to walk down to the river. There is a lovely sandy path winding its way through the stones that line the shore. Helga hoped over a few stones to sit on a flat rock in the river to dip her feet in the Ganga. I thought this was a good idea, so I tried this as well. However, a stone shifted under my foot and I fell on my ass in the river! Unfortunately this meant that my shoulder bag – with camera, wallet, mobile phone and wrist watch – also got wet. Fortunately no lasting damage (it took a couple of days for my camera to dry out – I don’t think it’s working that well but at least the memory card is ok). This also meant that I had to spent the rest of the day with wet pants (and I was wearing punjabi pants – which have a LOT of fabric to them).

We then climbed back up the hill, got back into the car and went to the Kirit Hermitage to meet Maa Gyaan Suveera, who spoke at PDI a couple of weeks previously. Maa Gyaan is such a lovely soul. It was wonderful to sit in her hermitage with the Gange roaring beneath the cliffs, and just be in her presence.

Back into the car we went and just south of Ram Jhoola we went to a fabulous ISKCON temple (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). The party was just getting started when we arrived – and I do mean party. There was chanting – as is the norm – but there was also clapping and dancing…..much to our chagrin the women were clapping and the men were dancing (we really wanted to dance) but it was wonderful, so free and joyful. As is the case whenever there is chanting and singing I could stay forever – I think we must have been there for 45 minutes before we finally left for the restaurant downstairs. We put Dr Vivek in charge of ordering and we had a lovely, lovely meal. The food at PDI is delicious but it is nice to have something different for a change.

It’s so hard to capture the feel and energy of places with words, but the three places we visited today: the Ganga, the Hermitage and the ISKCON temple were absolute magic. A wonderful day in India!